Fields project, dogged by delays, is stalled after funds dry

The Vashon Park District has suspended nearly all work at its fields’ complex north of town until it garners more money for the project from both user fees and fundraising efforts.

The Vashon Park District has suspended nearly all work at its fields’ complex north of town until it garners more money for the project from both user fees and fundraising efforts.

“We’re holding off on spending anything more until we can raise the money to keep going,” said Jan Milligan, the park district’s executive director.

The district has scheduled a fundraiser for Aug. 23 in an effort to reignite community interest in the $1.7 million project. Supporters also believe that once the partially completed complex is open to the public, possibly this fall, Islanders will step forward with a greater level of support.

“We’re hoping that when we open up the facility in the fall and people are out there, there will be more community attention on the need to complete this thing,” said David Hackett, a park district commissioner and one of the project’s leading champions.

But a partial fall opening is not guaranteed, in part because of the

condition of the grass on the newly seeded fields. Without a budget, the park district hasn’t been able to cover the $36,000 cost of hooking up electrical power to the site. As a result, the agency is spending $1,500 a month on a generator to pump water into the tank used to irrigate the fields. But the generator can only operate 12 hours a day during the week and fewer hours on the weekend — not enough hours to completely fill the tank and thus not enough water to keep the grass growing if the next two months are hot and dry, both Milligan and Hackett said.

“If it gets too hot, it won’t work, because the watering needs of the grass go way up,” Hackett said.

Inadequate watering won’t kill the grass, but it will delay the project’s opening, Milligan said. “If the grass isn’t developed and healthy enough, we can’t use the field in the fall,” she said.

The effort to transform what was an uneven set of grass fields next to The Harbor School into a full-fledged outdoor sports complex began in 2009, after the park district secured grants from both King County and the state. Initially, it was considered an $832,600 project scheduled to be completed by September 2011, according to the agreement the park district signed with the state’s Recreation and Conservation Office, which awarded a $368,000 grant to the project.

The goal then, as now, was to build not only two well-drained, well-engineered grass fields but also to install field lighting, a restroom, a concession area, backstops, fencing, dugouts and spectator benches. The nearly five acres of fields would provide both practice and playing space for soccer, baseball, lacrosse and football.

But the project — now supported by a $500,000 state grant and with an estimated budget of $1.7 million — has encountered one problem after another, Hackett and others said.

The septic system the park district had hoped to use was failing, forcing the district to undertake a time-consuming effort to hook up to the Vashon Sewer District. Permitting costs from the county’s Department of Development and Environmental Services were much higher than anyone had anticipated. Perhaps most troubling was a boundary dispute with a neighboring landowner, which cost the district thousands of dollars in legal fees and cast a pall over the project for several months. Fundraising from the community has fallen far short of the $300,000 the park district had projected, in part, Hackett believes, because of the boundary dispute.

Meanwhile, property values on Vashon fell, putting a dent in the park district’s budget. And the park district’s longtime executive director Wendy Braicks left in the midst of the project, leading the district to bring on Milligan, new to the park district, to helm the small agency.

Hackett, a deputy prosecutor for King County and a longtime park commissioner, said the project was also hurt by initial cost estimates that were far too low and the district’s inexperience in undertaking a project of this magnitude.

“It has been a bit of a perfect storm, combined with our inexperience … and naiveté,” he said.

Adding to the situation is a new problem: The largest contractor for the project, Doug Hoffmann, says the district is wrongly withholding $13,000 in fees and has hired Vashon lawyer David Cooper to try to collect what he says he’s owed. Milligan signed a form and sent it to a state agency saying his contractual work was completed; as a result, Hoffmann said, he’s owed what’s called his retainage fee.

The district disputes Hoffmann’s claims, contending he has not performed about $36,000 in work outlined in several contracts worth a total of $471,000. Milligan signed the state form, a “notice of completion of public works contract,” she said, because she thought he was about to complete everything and she didn’t want him to be delayed in getting his payments.

Hoffmann is frustrated. “She signed off on it, and now (the commissioners) are saying she shouldn’t have,” he said, adding that the board is trying to “throw Jan under the bus.”

“The commissioners,” he added, “are getting involved in things they don’t know anything about. … My contract is with the park district, and the executive director is the one who signs off on it.”

But Hackett, who wrote a letter to Hoffmann’s lawyer outlining the work the district says he has yet to complete, said the issue is black and white — earth-moving work listed on the contract has simply not yet been completed, he said.

Despite the saber-rattling, he expects both parties will walk away from the dispute. “We’re not going to go out and sue Hoffmann,” Hackett said.

Last week, Joe Wald, the park commissioner who secured the first funds for the project, a $75,000 youth sports facility grant from the county in 2008, and Hackett walked the fields, taking a look at a project that on some levels still has a long way to go.

Both said they’re frustrated by the situation.

“There’s just no progress,” Wald said. “We should be getting a few things done. … Things haven’t really been happening.”

Part of the problem, Wald said, is that Milligan hasn’t found a way to bring in additional funding, something she has said several times she intended to do. “I think it’s part of her job to find the funds to keep this going,” he said.

Hackett took a different tack, noting that Milligan stepped into a tough situation.

“I think the park district is going through some significant growing pains. I’m not sure that even the best  Jan could have stayed on top of that. I’d be hesitant to put too much at her door,” he said.

But those who are paying close attention to the project say that it will eventually be completed, and once it is, the bumpy road it took to get there will eventually be forgotten.

Scott Rice, a proponent of the fields project and a board member of both the soccer and lacrosse clubs on Vashon, said he believes no one person or situation is to blame for the headaches that have made the project costlier and more time-consuming than they had anticipated.

He, too, is frustrated that the fields might not be ready this fall for soccer. If that’s the case, he said, “It’ll be a tragedy.” Another yearlong delay, he said, means “a lot of kids will be displaced and lose playing and practice time because of a lack of field space.”

At the same time, he added, good intentions and civic-mindedness have fueled the project, and once it’s completed, it’ll be a wonderful community asset.

“In the end, it’ll be a great project. It’ll be beautiful,” Rice said. “It’s just a matter of finishing it up.”


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